While ambling down Interstate 94 with the cruise control just a shade above the speed limit, a blood-red pickup truck the size of Philadelphia flew by like a fireball in one of those Armageddon flicks -- cue the impending disaster effects and tell the extras to start running. I didn't get a good look at the driver but I did spot the unmistakable Ducks Unlimited decal and a bumper sticker that read, "Ayn Rand Was Right." I wondered, "right about what?" Was this a country gentleman who dabbled in political zealotry while passing the time in makeshift blind with shotgun at the ready? Perhaps a wordsmith who found the double entendre of the word "right" a clever statement in itself. Or maybe a redneck in paramilitary fatigues who had it on the best of authority that Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum was one righteous babe. No matter. Apparently Ayn Rand, an adulterating atheist from Russia, is now the spokesperson for the libertarian and neoconservative movement. It just goes to show you that anyone can make it in America.
Of course, at some point in our youth we identify with clear-thinking creative genius architect Howard Roark -- hands on hips looking straight ahead to the future -- Autonomous Man. Self made, self reliant. However with time most of us become more akin to talentless but widely ambitious Ellsworth Toohey -- the man that was holding you down is starting to look a lot like you.
What makes this affection for Ms. Rand so intriguing is that the very people she looks down on -- the disaffected and squashed -- are very ones that find her message so attractive. Objectivism at its core is basically existential -- you are free and responsible for your own destiny -- a very American idea. Individuality is indeed to be celebrated. Think Franklin or Edison or Jobs and this point of view becomes, shall we dare say, self-evident. But what is incongruous about this "look out for number one philosophy" is who is espousing it. Can you imagine the volatile grande dame at a Tea Party soiree -- "If your life sucks don't blame anyone else and don't try to enlist some imaginary higher power because it's entirely your own fault you stupid loser." At least she would point out the differences between Frank Lloyd Wright and the common rabble attempting to build a full scale replica of the Colossus of Rhodes with beer cans in their own backyard -- and that boys and girls is why we have zoning.
Ayn Rand is to free market capitalism what Liberace is to classical music. Oh sure, I do enjoy "Stella By Starlight" twinkling in the elevator as much as the next guy and I too occasionally feel like John Galt when I have to visit the DMV or pay taxes. Autonomous Man is terrific if we actually get to play the part but that role is reserved for the giant man standing astride the little people. While there can be only one Liam Gulliver there are millions of Lilliputians -- that's our cue. Ironically, this is the justification of the One Percent -- the modern version of noblesse oblige. I might even buy into the whole philosopher king thing but most of them can't even manage the roundabout in front of the school by my house. Oh, that's right -- it must be the result of inferior engineers.
I haven't seen the new movie Ayn Rand & The Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged so I am undoubtedly overlooking some of her obvious virtues. Perhaps she is the most misunderstood philosopher since Martin Heidegger or saw the whole New World Order thing like Oswald Spengler -- Decline of the West... Again. Maybe she possessed superpowers of psychokinesis and could bend spoons like Uri Geller -- a great party trick. She may have had some special technical skill that allowed her to invent military grade technology like Hedy Lamarr. The point is that I really don't know that much about her and I'm guessing that neither does the driver of that red pickup on I-94. So what did they really mean by "Ayn Rand was Right"? I believe it's something more like "The Government is way too big" or "Stop messing with my life" or "My representative doesn't represent me" or "What the hell is going on here?" Most of us can relate.
America has a rich history of strange attractors -- hatchet-toting psycho-chick Carrie Nation and the pink parasols and bonnets of the American Temperance Society comes to mind. Our history is filled with these mismatches -- many of the Founding Fathers from Paine to Jefferson were deists that moved a nation founded by puritans to revolution -- "These are the times that try men's souls."
Ironically, I actually agree with Ms. Rand on one central point -- the group is usually wrong. This is at the essence of innovation -- it requires deviation. In an age of ubiquitous and pervasive information technology -- end to endlessly -- open and collaborative innovation is star of the show. So it is not surprising that there is considerable evidence that groups are much more likely to develop patentable innovations than individuals. This also holds true for the proliferation of cross discipline research at top institutes and universities. But while the numbers are greater in groups, there is mounting evidence that disruptive and destructive innovations may favor the individual. There are many explanations as to why this may be the case -- ideas regress to the mean while groups conform to the norm, innovations spread sequentially like viruses, patents allow unprecedented line of sight so it masquerades that the lesser are really following the greater, technology based development systems are linear, etc. So in the end, it may be that "Ayn Rand was Right."
Maybe I've been joyriding with Ayn Rand all along and never really knew it. Oh, but if my dear wife asks you about her, we're just acquaintances.
Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com or follow his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com.
Follow Jeff DeGraff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JeffDeGraff